Scripture Readings: Amos 7:7-17, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37. This is the Gospel reading:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
As some of you know I just back from England about a week ago. And as most of you know, a few weeks before that, I threw my back out. And when that happened I almost canceled the trip. But my friend and I had already paid for it, and we wanted to go, so I gritted my teeth and got to packing.
Now I do not recommend traveling anywhere with a bad back, let alone overseas! But I have to say I am very grateful for the people who, a few decades ago, fought for the rights of the handicapped to access public places. Because of them, the airports and hotels we visited were well-equipped to deal with what I’ve got going on, and they did everything to make our trip as comfortable as possible.
My friend and I made this extra effort to get to England because we had signed up to take a class at Oxford under one of the leading theologians of our time: the retired Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He’s not as well known in the States as in the UK yet, but he spoke at Duke when Pastor Matt was there, and both he and I are familiar with Wright and we like his teaching. So given the chance to take a class with him, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity. And we were not disappointed. I will be sharing what we learned with you probably for the next year or so!
One of the big things I came away with from that class was this: N.T. Wright has a huge big-picture view of Scripture: a view that says everything from Old Testament to the Psalms to the Gospels to the New Testament all work together to tell the same story – which is a refreshing point of view when I hear so many people saying things like “the Old Testament so old it isn’t relevant any more”. According to Wright, the big-picture story the entire scriptures tell is a two-faceted story of (1) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and (2) the coming of the kingdom of God.
The scripture readings for today are a great example of this. We’re going to look mostly at the story of the Good Samaritan; but our readings from Amos in the Old Testament and Colossians in the New Testament lend support and direction and illustration to what Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. They build on one another. So follow with me as we look at today’s readings as a series of building blocks building to the main point.
The first building block is our passage from the prophet Amos. By way of background (Amos being a little-known prophet): Amos preached God’s word in the northern kingdom of Israel around 700 BC (give or take a couple decades) after the kingdom of Israel had divided into two, north and south. The south kingdom, called Judah, remained faithful to the descendants of King David (for a while). But the northern kingdom was in rebellion – not only against David’s royal line, but against God as well. Its priests and its kings were about as corrupt as you can get. They lived only for themselves; they indulged every whim; they were famous for exploiting the poor; taking advantage of widows and orphans; bribing judges; and completely corrupting the legal system.
This is what God called Amos to preach against. And here’s the message God gave Amos to preach: the Lord said, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… I will rise against the house of Jeroboam (the king at the time) with the sword.”
A ‘plumb line’: I’ve never actually used one, but my husband the carpenter has. A plumb line is a string with a weight on the end that uses the force of gravity to show a perfectly straight vertical line. And it’s used to make sure things like walls are built straight up. God is saying to King Jeroboam and the religious leaders of Israel: ‘I am holding you up to a straight line… and it shows that you are not straight. You are crooked. You are bent.’
Of course when a carpenter is building, if a wall is not straight, it has to be torn down and rebuilt, because you can’t build on a foundation or on a wall that’s crooked. The whole building would fall over. And that’s the implication here: God wants to build his Kingdom through Israel, but the nation has become crooked and God can’t build on that. And God is saying through Amos: if the leadership of the nation can’t be straightened out, it needs to be removed and replaced.
The plumb line – that perfect plumb line that God sets in Israel – in a way is a prophecy about Jesus. Note: this is not the only meaning in the passage; the Old Testament means what it means within its own context. But many passages in the Old Testament have a double meaning and this is one of them. Jesus is the plumb line against which all humanity is measured, and against which none of us comes up perfectly straight. I’ll come back to that thought in a moment.
But there are a few other parallels to observe in this passage between Amos’ message and Jesus’ life:
- In our passage from Amos, Amaziah the priest tells the king “Amos is conspiring against you.” And in Jesus’ story, the priests go to Pilate and say “Jesus is stirring up a rebellion” – in other words, “he’s conspiring against you”. Same accusation against both men of God. Coincidence?
- In the reading from Amos, Amaziah the priest says to Amos: ‘get out of here. Go somewhere else. We don’t want to hear you’. His exact words in verse 13 are: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
The irony of these words is that the name ‘Bethel’ in Hebrew means ‘house of God’ – in other words, this temple is the sanctuary of the true king, the heavenly king – not the corrupt earthly king. And Amos replies: judgement will fall, and the people will be exiled… just like Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden.
So the plumb line is the first building block of the story: Israel didn’t measure up. And none of us measures up perfectly either. But the good news is Jesus, the Messiah, did for us what we – and what Israel – could not do for ourselves.
The second building block is found in Colossians. In this passage Paul is talking about the gospel of the kingdom of God, whose arrival has begun in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s words kingdom living is characterized by faith, hope, and love (vss 4 & 5), and results in spiritual wisdom and understanding (v 9) and also results in bearing fruit for the kingdom in the form of good works. (Note: good works are the fruit of salvation, the result, not the means of getting there.)
In verse 13 Paul describes God’s kingdom this way: “God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” It is God’s forgiveness that opens the doors of the Kingdom to us; it is God’s forgiveness that makes it possible for us to see what the plumb line is telling us, to hear and understand and turn to God for the forgiveness we need in faith, in confidence; and therefore to enter God’s kingdom and live lives that bear Kingdom fruit.
God’s Kingdom is a change in leadership, a change in sovereignty. In God’s Kingdom we are ruled by the power of love and mercy, not by the power of violence and force like the world around us. This is the good news that overcomes the world!
So the second building block is the preaching of the good news of God’s Kingdom.
And the story of the Good Samaritan is our third building block. It illustrates for us what reality is like in God’s Kingdom… what Kingdom values are. Let’s take a look.
So a lawyer comes to Jesus to test him, and he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s an odd conversation opener, and Jesus bounces it back to him. He says, “What’s in the law? How do you read?” And the lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus says basically, “That’s right. Now go do it.”
“But wanting to justify himself” the scripture says, the lawyer asks ‘and who is my neighbor?’
I find it interesting that the lawyer doesn’t quibble with the first part, the part about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. Does he think he’s got that nailed down already? But I digress.
So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – how a Jewish man, traveling the dangerous desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho, falls among thieves and is beaten and left by the roadside for dead. He is passed by, first by a priest and then by a Levite. But a man from Samaria – a foreigner, someone who was considered an enemy of the Jewish people – has compassion on him, and rescues him, and cares for him, and pays an innkeeper to take care of him.
And the lawyer questioning Jesus has to admit that the Samaritan was the one who was the true neighbor. And Jesus tells him, “go and do likewise.”
This story is SO well-known and has been preached so many times, I feel a need to back up for a minute and lay down a few disclaimers. There are a number of things the Good Samaritan story is not about:
- It is not (primarily) about which group of people is right and which group of people is wrong
- It is not (primarily) about avoiding self-righteousness… although it does confront self-righteousness
- It is not a blanket condemnation of lawyers (this is not history’s first lawyer joke)
- It is not a blanket condemnation of priests, Levites, or any other clergy (however it does point out that not everyone practices what they preach)
- It is not a blanket commendation of Samaritans: Jesus is not saying that all Samaritans are good. The choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story does speak to the issue of prejudice, but only to make a larger point.
So what IS this story about?
As the old English theologian Charles Simeon once said: “The distinctions [that is, our differences] of religion or politics should be forgotten whenever [someone] stands in need of our assistance; we should sympathize as truly with our bitterest enemy, as with our dearest friend.” THAT is the point of this story.
The Samaritan’s kindness and mercy to an enemy is like Jesus. It’s Christlike, because Jesus showed us kindness and mercy by dying for us when we were enemies of God.
This is the ‘gold standard’ of God’s kingdom. This is the plumb line against which we will be measured. And knowing we don’t measure up perfectly, this is the forgiveness Jesus gives us so that we can enter the Kingdom.
When Jesus says “go and do likewise” he is inviting us to let God’s heart of compassion take root in us and grow in us. It’s not just “be like the Samaritan”. To really grasp the point I had to go back to the Greek. Verse 33 says “and when [the Samaritan] saw him, he had compassion”…
The Greek word translated compassion is a word that’s only used five other times in the whole Bible, and in all five times it describes the heart of God:
- Three of the five times describe Jesus’ compassion for the crowds. For example, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were…like sheep without a shepherd.”
- The fourth time describes Jesus’ compassion for the widow whose son had died. (Luke 7:13) Jesus had compassion and raised the young man from the dead.
- The fifth and final time describes the compassion of the father for the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20) “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
The story of the Good Samaritan invites us to do more than just have sympathy for others. We are invited to have empathy with God. That’s what Paul is talking about in Colossians when he prays the Colossians will be “filled with… spiritual wisdom and understanding…” It means to know God better, to know God’s heart, to let our hearts move with God’s heart
God is inviting us to feel as God feels, to be moved by what moves God, and to be moved to action by the things that move God to action. This is Kingdom living! It’s what the people in Amos’ day were missing, and it’s what the Colossians were being praised for as they began their faith journey
And for us here today – will we live into God’s kingdom? Not just trusting God for our salvation – which is a beginning – but more than this, believing God’s promises are true for all people in all times and places.
Do we have the courage to hold up a plumb line to the world we live in, and call people to mercy and forgiveness? Do we have the courage to say ‘yes Lord’ where it comes to getting to know the heart of God? Will we live into this ourselves, showing mercy even to our enemies? This is kingdom living, and whenever we do these things, the light of God’s kingdom advances further into the darkness of our world. Let’s go for it! AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/10/16